Friday, 30 September 2011

Guardian media debate

Yesterday I took part in packed Guardian debate to discuss how the press can restore public trust in the wake of the hacking scandal. On the panel with me were Carl Bernstein, the legendary investigative journalist who led the exposure of the Watergate scandal in the US, Sylvie Kauffman, from Le Monde and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian.

It proved to be something of a role reversal for both myself and the audience of budding journalists and Guardian Media types. For the Guardian set, there was much hand wringing about the perceived unbridled power of Rupert Murdoch and those awful tabloids but a stubborn reluctance to countenance better regulation to deal with that power. Meanwhile, as a Conservative, I am ideologically opposed to excessive regulation but, after spending four years dealing with the fourth estate while head of media at the Conservative Party, reluctantly concluded that it was the only answer to restore some kind of accountability to our media.

People do not own national newspapers to make money – most papers make a loss. Newspapers are generally owned by people who made their money doing something else but own papers because, rightly or wrongly, they think it buys them status or, perhaps, influence. That can’t be healthy.

Carl Bernstein opposed any form of code which sought to require standards of accuracy or even truth in newspapers, saying that this would be tantamount to a “truth commission”. However, the only reason that newspapers are feared is that they have the unbridled power to print things that are untrue and to create, as the great propagandist Walter Lipman put it, a “pseudo-environment” of information which enables the opinion of the masses to be “regimented” in a particular way. Journalism should aspire to do better than that.

We can’t go on with a situation where the closest thing we have to accountability for the media is Private Eye’s 'Street of Shame' column. My argument is that journalists have nothing to fear from a properly enforced code of conduct backed up by sanctions because it would enhance the status of their profession. In my four years working at close quarters with the media, I saw frequent instances where “hatchet job” stories which were known to be untrue by their writers appeared in print, often for no better reason than the fact that an editor had thrown a tantrum because the party had just given a particular announcement to a rival paper and they felt they needed to extract revenge. What a betrayal of their readers.

In the early days of David Cameron’s leadership, we pursued a strategy that sought to deal with this. We believed that if politicians were less craven about courting the media but instead were a little more aloof, you could rebalance the culture and politely puncture media arrogance and re-calibrate their position within democratic society. So there were to be fewer exclusive briefings handed out like sweets, fairer treatment for papers who were not our natural allies, shrill leader columns were to be ignored as one would ignore a child’s tantrum and we would spend less time courting editors and proprietors over dinner but instead have a cup of tea with the journalists working at the coal face. We had some early successes but in the end if foundered when Gordon Brown arrived because, while technically weak, he was the most craven media tart of them all and the media lapped it up and gave him a honeymoon.

The phone hacking scandal means that people are, for the first time, willing to question the unbridled power of the media. The days of accountability applying to everyone except the newspapers themselves might finally be over and both journalism and democracy could be stronger as a result.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Time for Cornwall to take control of its own heritage

I have always believed that this part of Cornwall could make more of its amazing industrial heritage and earlier this summer I organised a mini conference to discuss how we can maximise the benefits from Cornwall’s World Heritage Site status. Camborne, Redruth and Hayle together make up the heart of the county’s industrial heritage. There are also around 8 million people around the world who are part of the Cornish Diaspora, with ancestors who can be traced back to Cornwall.

Some good work is already underway. Last week I visited the Heartlands project at Pool which is almost complete and which could create a strong central attraction to pull more people into the area. As well as bringing the engine house at Robinson’s shaft back into action, the project is also developing what promises to be an amazing landscaping project. Around the engine house will be a reflection pool and a bridge and beyond the bridge a series of gardens with plants from New Zealand, Australia, South America and South Africa to symbolise the route that thousands of Cornish emigrants took.

As I wrote last week, there is also a lot of potential for Hayle which played a central role in Cornwall’s industrial past. There are plans to restore the harbour to its former glory and to return home the famous Goonvean engine which was manufactured at Hayle Foundry. There would even be working sluicing gates to reduce the need for dredging and the plans recently gained the unanimous backing of Hayle Town Council.

However, in a bizarre twist to the story, the campaign against restoring Hayle harbour is actually being led by none other than English Heritage, the organisation that is paid for by you and I and is supposed to promote and celebrate heritage in Britain. English Heritage is one of those quangos which was very nearly shut down by the government last year but, instead, it was decided to place it on a review list and to streamline its operations.

In recent years there has been a growing feeling that Cornwall should have its own heritage organisation which takes over from English Heritage. After all, how can a quango whose nearest office is in Bristol possibly understand issues in Hayle? If you look at their website, there is not one single reference to Camborne, Redruth or Hayle, even though our towns are at the heart of a World Heritage Site. Instead, what you get are pictures of pretty castles in the home counties. Cornwall’s industrial heritage should be an attraction to the whole world but it belongs to Cornwall and Cornwall alone. It is time we started to make our own decisions about how best to bring it to life.

George Eustice can be contacted on george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or at 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall, TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Hayle

The opportunity to put Hayle on the map and restore the harbour area to its former glory came a step closer last week as Hayle Town Council unanimously backed the latest proposal put forward by ING for the restoration of South Quay.

There has been a lot of interest in Hayle over the last year or so with no less than four separate applications coming forward wanting to build a new supermarket. At times, both planners and residents have been presented with a very complicated set of options and it has been difficult to work out what best to do but the people of Hayle have now swung overwhelmingly behind the ING proposals for South Quay.

I have always been clear that, if we are going to have a supermarket in Hayle, then we must make sure our community gets something in return and we should put it where it will bring life into the town rather than drain life away. I think there has been a problem in the past with supermarkets being built in out of town locations which have undermined our town centres and smaller retailers. There are excellent independent clothes shops in Hayle including Dune and The Wharf at Copperhouse. Meanwhile, Penpol Terrace has Mr B’s, the best ice cream parlour in Cornwall. I would like to see successful development that spurs even more new businesses forward and it starts with South Quay.

The competitive interest shown by supermarkets in Hayle has created a once in a generation opportunity to deliver that thing which has eluded the town for far too long: the chance to restore and regenerate the harbour area around South Quay. It has been talked about all my life time and now we have a chance to deliver it. Over the last six months, many people in the community and heritage groups have worked closely with ING to try to improve the design of the scheme and to come up with something interesting and striking that respects and celebrates Hayle’s extraordinary heritage. They have done well. The plans would also see the return of working sluicing gates which would dramatically reduce the need for dredging so it would also be a victory for the long standing campaign run by Save Our Sand.

It has always depressed me that tourists staying at Hayle all too often drive around to St Ives for an evening out. I want to see people leaving St Ives and coming to Hayle because, in future, it will be the place to be. We could even run a shuttle boat service to improve communication between the two towns and bring people into Hayle. There are still one or two more hurdles to overcome but Hayle is a town which could finally be going places. Let’s do it.

George Eustice can be contacted on george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or at 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall, TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Kernow Credit Union

The last few years has seen a growing problem with loan sharks: unscrupulous money lenders who prey on families on low incomes and sting them with extortionate interest charges which often equate to interest rates of several hundred percent per year. Once on the hook families find that they are unable to escape their debts because every bit of money they have gets scooped up in interest charges.

I have never had much time for banks. In my early career when we were in the middle of a dispute with our bank, I always remember one financial adviser shrugging his shoulders and telling me that banks are money lenders and if you look in the bible, they don’t come too high up. But the loan sharks who prey on those most in need are the worst type of money lenders and I would support clearer regulation to curtail their sharp practices.

In the meantime, we must do much more to highlight better ways of helping families manage their finances in difficult times. Last week I decided to join the Kernow Credit Union based at Redruth. I think that credit unions are a fantastic idea and we need membership of them to become the norm. The concept is what can best be described as ethical and safe banking. Those who demonstrate commitment and thrift by saving for at least three months are then able to borrow up to three times the amount that they have saved at low interest rates. They do not do “credit checks” on people. There are none of those “subject to status” caveats in the small print of promotional literature. Instead, people earn their status by being conscientious to the credit union and demonstrating that they are willing to put aside a set amount of money each week or month.

People save regularly and are allocated shares in the local credit union so that they become shareholders with an asset. The credit union pays an annual yield or interest on those shares which equates to about 2 percent, higher than most banks would offer at the moment. The rates on the loans tend to be comparable with good rates from high street banks but less than credit cards. There is also one additional bonus. A life insurance scheme is automatically included. On death, the credit union pays the next of kin double the value of the shares held in the credit union.

Credit Unions are very common in other countries. In Ireland, around 60 percent of families are members and they are also common in countries like Australia. At a time when commercial banks have lost their way, credit unions are a reminder of what old fashioned, community based lending should be and people who start saving today will be able to borrow for Christmas.

Kernow Credit Union is based on the ground floor of the Town Council office building, Penryn Street, Redruth, telephone 01209 314449. Their website is www.kfcreditunion.co.uk